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The Problem with Chronic Insomnia

Sleep, aging, and your brain…

Has sleep become more of a problem with each passing year? Insomnia is a sleep disorder characterized by trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, and it typically affects 30-45% of adults over the age of 60. Poor sleep can cause daytime sleepiness, which increases the risk for falls and injury. Insomnia also reduces quality of life and can strain family relationships. As a result, people with insomnia are more likely to develop depression later in their life. In addition to mental health disorders that may be connected to poor sleep, doctors are finding that many older adults have insomnia combined with chronic diseases, such as diabetes, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegenerative diseases. Surveys have shown that older adults with multiple chronic diseases are more likely to rate their sleep as poor compared to healthy older adults.  

Insomnia and Alzheimer’s Disease

Studies from New York and Iceland found that chronic insomnia increases the risk for cognitive (brain function) decline with age. This could be because sleep — REM sleep in particular — is believed to be involved in learning and memory formation. In fact, the connection between insomnia and cognitive impairments recently prompted researchers to test the idea that insomnia could be a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Early studies in mice showed that when subjected to acute sleep deprivation, levels of amyloid beta, the protein that makes up Alzheimer’s plaques, increased in the brain. In the same study, chronic sleep deprivation seemed to have the same effects. Based on these observations, other groups performed studies in humans and found elevated amyloid levels in the cerebrospinal fluid of people with insomnia, and this predicted their risk of dementia (Alzheimer’s).

What can we do about sleep and our brains?

For some of us, sleep is always a problem. And right now, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought even more stress to many people, affecting how many of us fall asleep and stay asleep. This could have particular effects on those of us who are older, potentially increasing the risk for insomnia, and therefore Alzheimer’s. But there are things we can do about this. Behavioral changes have been shown to be the most successful strategy for preventing insomnia. A 2017 study out of California found that four weeks of cognitive behavioral treatments improved sleep in older adults who were struggling with insomnia. Types of behavioral treatments include stimulus control (reassociate bed with sleep), relaxation procedures (think: meditation), sleep restriction (limiting time spent in bed) and other approaches. Further explanations of these techniques can be found at SleepFoundation.org.

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ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Cali McEntee is a master’s student in the Healthspan Biology Lab in CSU’s Dept. of Health and Exercise Science.